Cannes-Winning Afghan Director Trying to Escape Kabul: “If I Survive This, I Will Make Films About What Happened”

Shahrbanoo Sadat — who claimed the top Directors' Fortnight prize in 2016 for 'Wolf and Sheep' — describes the nightmarish situation she currently faces as she tries to flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with her family, and how current events have already impacted her future filmmaking plans.

Shahrbanoo Sadat, one of Afghanistan’s best-known film directors, has spoken with The Hollywood Reporter from Kabul as she, like tens of thousands of Afghanis, is trying with her family to escape the Afghan capital, and the country.

Sadat, who won the top Directors’ Fortnight award in Cannes for her first feature, the rural Afghanistan-set Wolf and Sheep, in 2016 and returned three years later with her well-received follow up The Orphanage, described the nightmarish situation she faces as she waits for news on whether she will be able to fly out from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where there were scenes of chaos on Monday as hundreds of people stormed the runway trying to find a way onto a departing plane. The exodus follows the fall of Kabul to the Taliban over the weekend. The extremist military group now has effective control of Afghanistan.

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“The problem is actually how to get to the airport and how to find the plane,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The first checkpoint at the very first entry of the airport is under the control of the Taliban. And there are so many checkpoints on the way to the airport.”

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Sadat says that to get through she needs to have a letter with the exact details of the flight and confirmation that all the people she is traveling with have seats, but the current chaotic situation meant that the airlines hadn’t been able to provide any of this information.

“So we are just waiting for that,” she explains, adding that she has had friends from around the world trying to help her out.

Following the U.S. government’s dramatic and deeply contentious decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan after 20 years, Taliban forces quickly retook the country, seizing control of all major towns and cities in just 10 days.

“It’s a great shock — we didn’t expect this to happen so soon,” says Sadat on the Taliban’s lightning-fast advance, adding that she thought it would be “at least one month” before they were in Kabul. Even though she was warned the day before they entered the capital (and actually invited to fly — an invitation she rejected as it didn’t include her family), Sadat says she didn’t really acknowledge the reality.

“Living in Afghanistan, your ears get used to hearing about how the Taliban are on the way, the Taliban are in this part of the country and that part of the country,” she says. “So you don’t really differentiate the danger anymore, because you hear these sentences all the time.”

The situation only became apparent over the weekend when she went to the bank near where she lives, and instead of the usual five to 10 customers, there were 500 people trying to withdraw money. “Then the bank was evacuated and everyone was pushed out and thrown out in the streets, where I saw Taliban cars with their flags,” she recalls.

Sadat — who in Cannes 2019 warned that political negotiations with the Taliban would lead to a return to the deep restrictions they previously imposed on women’s lives across Afghanistan — says she’s too focused on the present to consider what the future holds for her country. But she notes that her filmmaking has already been impacted.

“If I survive this and I have the chance to make more films, my cinema will have changed forever,” she says. “I feel like like I’m observing, I’m watching injustice and something really horrible, and I just need to save it in my body, remember it and put it in films later, to share it with the world. If I survive this, I will make films about what happened.”

Sadat’s previous work has focused on the details of ordinary, everyday Afghani life, in what appeared a deliberate attempt to move the lens away from the all-too-familiar world of politics and conflict. But the director says that she’s now “thinking differently” and wants to make historical films that educate people on how Afghanistan got to where it is today and the role other countries have played in shaping it.

“I think it’s important for us in Afghanistan to know at least the history of the last 100 years because nobody here is reading books,” she says. “You can make films and learn from the past, and we can understand our position in Afghanistan and other countries [involved in] Afghanistan. Knowing history is our one hope for Afghanistan in the future.”

Despite her precarious situation and the anger she says she feels, Sadat says she will look to channel her emotions into her future work.

“I suppose if there’s one good thing from all this mess, it’s the energy created from the anger because people can do things,” she said. “I can make films, others can write, other people can organize. There’s so much of this energy and we have to do something with it.”

Right now, however, Sadat’s focus is on getting the flight information and leaving Afghanistan. She hasn’t had a chance to consider her final destination. “At the moment the most important thing is to get to the airport and to get out.”